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Fine Books Interview

Archivist in the Forest

FB: Was Thoreau a favorite before you became curator at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods?

JC: He was, which is why being curator here is such a rewarding job. There are jobs which we go to because we must, and then there are jobs which we love to go to, and I’m lucky to be able to say my job fits into the latter category. But I have to admit, I was not always a devotee of Thoreau. As an undergrad I was an English major who believed all the great literature came out of England. It wasn’t until later that I came to my senses, reading Moby-Dick for the first time and realizing that great literature isn’t relegated to any one country or any one time, although for me, with due apologies to both Melville and Whitman, I’d be hard-pressed to find anything better than what came out of Concord in the mid-nineteenth century.

FB: Tell me about the Institute and its collections.

JC: The Thoreau Institute opened in 1998. It’s owned and managed by the Walden Woods Project, which was founded in 1990 by recording artist Don Henley. OK, here’s my one-minute elevator pitch: Our mission is to preserve the land, literature and legacy of Thoreau by fostering an ethic of environmental stewardship and social responsibility through the integration of conservation, education, and research. The Institute is a research center for Thoreau studies housing the most comprehensive collection of Thoreau-related material in one place. We’re open to the public for anyone interested in Thoreau, at whatever level, whether an academic, a student or an enthusiast; whether an individual or a group; whether for research or to just find out more about Thoreau.

FB: When I visited the Institute’s library, I was enamored by the Thoreau family pencils that were on display. What’s one of your favorite items?

JC: Not an easy question, because my answer keeps changing. One of my recent favorites is one we purchased last year, the earliest extant note by Thoreau. It was written when he was a student at Harvard College and he’s making what seems a somewhat non-Thoreauvian request: to get his room white-washed and a new hearth put it. It makes him very real, as a person, not just as an icon.

FB: Is your day-to-day work—reference, acquisitions, processing, fundraising—like most other research institutions?

JC: That’s right, and I have to strike some sort of balance between all of those things. Perhaps the main difference being that we’re a small organization—I’m the entire library staff—and so a lot of juggling goes on, and prioritizing, but somehow the work gets done.

FB: Do you purchase books and manuscripts for the collection? At auctions? Book fairs?

JC: We do sometimes, but we really look to donors: scholars who donate their collections; people who have one rare Thoreau item in their attic; donors who may be willing to purchase a rare item at an auction and then donate it to us. Books and manuscripts being offered for sale, particularly very unique items which carry a high price, and our ability to raise the funds needed to purchase them do not always coincide, and so we sadly see items being sold off into private hands rather than being held in an institution such as ours where access is made freely available to all. We do have an acquisitions fund to which people can donate specifically for this purpose. Anyone interested can contact me.

FB: Thoreau seems ever-popular. In last month’s issue, we published an article on the award-winning new novel about Thoreau’s role in a forest fire in 1844. Have you read the novel?

JC: I’m familiar with Woodsburner but haven’t had the time to read it yet. It is on my list of books to read, a list that grows exponentially. With three books contracted—The Quotable Thoreau for Princeton University Press; The Portable Thoreau for Viking Penguin; and The Literary Way: Selected Essays of Henry David Thoreau: A Fully Annotated Edition for Yale University Press—I’m finding little time for anything else at the moment. Not that I’m complaining.

FB: What works by/about Thoreau do you recommend?

JC: You mean (ahem) beyond my own? Just kidding. There are so many wonderful books out there. Ask me tomorrow and I might give you a completely different list, but one that I always suggest is Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, a book that has never been fully appreciated. A personal favorite is William Howarth’s Walking with Thoreau. For a biography, it would have to be Robert Richardson’s Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. And no one who loves Thoreau should miss Edward Abbey’s essay “Down the River with Thoreau.” It’s a classic in its own right.

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Rebecca Rego Barry is the editor of this magazine.